TIFF Rising Star Ellen Wong wrestling with deeper roles
Toronto actor of GLOW fame is using her platform to push for diversity in film.
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Ellen Wong doesn’t roll with the punches — she throws them. Or at least her character does in the recently released Netflix series GLOW or Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.
“People want to see women kicking ass, but also coming together, learning from one another, growing,” said Wong, who grew up in Toronto.
Wong was named a Rising Star at the Toronto International Film Festival in August. The platform promotes homegrown talent and gives actors an opportunity to meet industry professionals from around the world.
"For a big part of my career, I have just been doing and saying what’s on the page as an actor,” said Wong. “It’s a really interesting time to have a show like this that is commenting on — with humour — the things that women, minorities, have been sort of dealing with for a very, very long time.”
She said the TIFF program is a “supportive, safe environment” to continue speaking about what matters to her and sharing her story — and acting, especially in GLOW, has helped her find her voice on and offscreen. The series carves out realistic and raw portrayals of women who face abortion, body-shaming, motherhood, betrayal and friendship through a female perspective.
“People want to see more women on screen. People want to see more diversity on screen,” she said.
Her character in GLOW takes on the persona of “Fortune Cookie” in the wrestling ring — something Wong didn’t take lightly as the daughter of Cambodian refugees. It was a visit to her parents’ home around seven years ago that gave her the push she needed to focus on acting, which they didn’t accept as a proper career path, at first.
“I think them coming from their background, very traditional, there was a lot of fear of failing before even trying something,” she said. “We’re lucky that we were born into this society and I didn’t want to waste that.”
After her trip to Cambodia, she told her parents she was giving herself a year to pursue acting.
“And that’s kind of how it all started. I booked Scott (Pilgrim vs. the World) that year and I just kept doing it,” she said.
After she played Knives Chau in Scott Pilgrim (2010), she said she received a lot of calls for the “same type of roles.” She said, throughout her career, she’s been confronted with typecasting and the barriers of playing the “bubbly sidekick” or “hacker genius.” It was a struggle to decide if she was feeding into the stereotype with her GLOW persona, but after speaking with the show’s creators (Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch) she was confident in its message.
“You better believe we were having some big and deep conversations behind the scenes. We realized it’s not just about doing it. It’s about having the conversation,” said Wong. “If there’s a role like that, that comes with getting to see the character’s backstory and it feels nuanced and there’s layers to it, I’m excited. I try to always look deeper, rather than playing this archetype on the surface.”
The rise of women in all parts of the industry has been encouraging and slowly growing, said Toronto International Film Festival senior manager Magali Simard.
“In Canada, I have to say, it’s been positive in the past few years with institutions taking concrete steps to make a difference. We cannot rely on wishful thinking for these things to happen,” she said.
Corporations like Telefilm Canada are funding films created by women, said Simard. The Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television launched an apprenticeship program for female directors in March. TIFF created the Share Her Journey campaign to create more opportunities for women. At this year’s festival, kicking off Thursday, women directed 78 of the 255 total features.
Author and women’s advocate Elissa Stein said it’s refreshing to see GLOW tackle serious issues that weren’t treated as a punchline.
“To hear toxic shock syndrome mentioned, to watch the reality of an abortion clinic, to see best friends grapple with post-cheating feelings instead of having a man be front and centre? Wow,” she said.
Moving forward, Stein said it’s important to support shows that promote women.
“It's only through their success that similar projects will be green lighted. And then, more women need to step up and jump into the creative process. Gender imbalance isn't going to change without increased participation. Women exploring women is where things should and need to go,” she said.
For Wong, GLOW is an example of the “encouragement and the power” of the female bond.
She said she was nervous to be with about a dozen women on set every day for GLOW. But before the cameras started rolling, the cast had to go through wrestling training for four weeks. Wong said that was a “great ice breaker.”
“We got close really fast physically and then emotionally, too ... There’s this level of understanding that’s unspoken when women come together and are able to work toward the same goal together, not in a competitive way,” she said.
Her next steps include developing a movie with Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald.
“I’m writing a bit more now, also. I was definitely trying to find my voice in other places, too, and not just through this one vehicle of acting,” she said. “Are there stereotypes? Yes. Do I have days where I feel frustrated about it? Yes. But I think that we’re at an exciting time actually.”
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